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'White space' spectrum debate to get hotter

Brad Reed | Aug. 25, 2008
Internet companies, such as Google, and device manufacturers, such as Motorola, have been pushing for the FCC to open up the spectrum for unlicensed use.

FRAMINGHAM, 20 AUGUST 2008 - Over the next few weeks, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to make a decision that could completely change the mobile-broadband landscape in the United States for years to come.

This summer, the FCC and several wireless carriers and device manufacturers have been testing devices that operate on television "white spaces," or pieces of unlicensed spectrum currently unused by television stations on the VHF and UHF frequency bands. Internet companies, such as Google, and device manufacturers, such as Motorola, have been pushing for the FCC to open up the spectrum for unlicensed use, arguing it would help bring mobile broadband to under-served regions and would help close the so-called "digital divide" between many urban and rural areas in the United States.

The companies have met staunch opposition from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which doesn't want mobile Internet devices operating on unlicensed spectrum clashing with broadcasts on nearby frequencies. Past FCC tests on white-space devices have lent credence to the broadcasters' concerns, because some devices were found to interfere with other broadcasts and were unable to detect consistently or accurately the presence of other TV or wireless microphone signals.

Additionally, telecom giant Verizon recently indicated it also opposes opening up the unlicensed spectrum for device use, asserting that the company has been unimpressed with the white-space device tests so far and that it "generally . . . favored licensed spectrum" for wireless devices.

The issues that have to be resolved

Both sides in the white-spaces debate have clear and understandable economic motives. On the "pro" side, such tech companies as Google and Microsoft have a clear vested interest in spreading the mobile Web to as many people as possible, because expansion will generate more revenue for their search engine and Windows Mobile platforms, respectively. Similarly, laptop and smart-phone manufacturers, such as Dell and Motorola, want to sell more devices to more people; and being able to use mobile devices on unlicensed spectrum will open up a whole new market.

Lining up against using white-space spectrum are broadcasters that want to protect the quality of their broadcasts on licensed spectrum by eliminating any and all potential sources of interference. Kelly Williams, the senior director of engineering and technology policy for the NAB, staked out an inflexible position at a Wireless Communications Association meeting earlier this year, saying any mobile-device use of white spaces was unacceptable and no amount of testing by the FCC could change his mind.  

Specifically, Williams said it would be impossible for the FCC to approve using unlicensed portable devices on white spaces, because doing so inevitably would interfere with the rights of licensed spectrum holders. "We don't like transmitters that move around," he said. "I don't see how a truly personal and portable device can actually work on those white spaces because it would need to know at all times just how far away it is from a consumer's TV set, and also what channel that TV is set to. It can never know that."


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